Questioning Your Bibliography

At the back of your thesis is a great big list of articles and sources that have helped your research. It can be massive. I’ve asked a lot of people about the size of their bibliography, and I regularly get answers in the region of two to three hundred papers. Someone once told me that their bibliography would have over 800 references!

Your examiners will likely have some questions for you about your literature review and bibliography. While you can’t predict all of them, you can still ask yourself some questions to help your preparation:

  • What are the top ten or twenty papers that have been useful to you?
  • Which papers have been most inspiring to you?
  • Have you cited your examiners, and what did you make of their research?
  • Which papers in your bibliography are most highly regarded?
  • What three or four categories could you group your bibliography in to?

Several hundred papers can be difficult to manage in your head. Questions can help to break that mental map up into something more realistic. These are a start, and are fairly generic. You know your research better than me, so think: what other questions might help?

A Good INTRO

I used to be petrified of public speaking. I would only give talks during my PhD when I absolutely had to. I was always concerned that I would forget something, make a mistake or be asked a question for which I had no answer. I was even nervous about being too nervous!

Then I started a business where I had to present all of the time. My fears went partly because of regularly being in situations where I had to present, but also because I went out of my way to explore ways to give talks. I liked to find out about how to structure talks, particularly the beginnings. I knew that if I could get that right I’d feel good about the rest of the presentation, whether it was ten minutes or two hours.

A few years ago, my good friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared an effective tool for starting talks with me. The tool is, fittingly, called INTRO and is an acronym to provide structure for the start of a presentation:

  • Interest: start by sharing something that will grab the audience’s attention, a fact, an image, a joke.
  • Need: say why what you’re going to talk about is important. Why does it need to be addressed?
  • Title: share the title of the talk.
  • Range: say something about how long you’ll speak for, what you might cover and how you want to handle questions.
  • Objective: close your introduction by sharing what you goal is with speaking. Is there something you want the audience to do as a result?

I really like how it helps start things off but also leads to a good overview. There’s a nice logic to it, and done well it can be a great start to a presentation. I think the five prompts also give a great format to create a summary of your research when it’s time to prepare for the viva.

  • Interest: how did you become interested in your field of research?
  • Need: what need does your thesis address?
  • Title: what is your thesis’ title, and why?
  • Range: what does your thesis cover?
  • Objective: what do you hope that someone would know, think or do after reading it?

Give INTRO a try when you next prepare a talk, see if it helps. Try it too when your viva is on the way to help break down what your work is all about.

8 Thoughts About Viva Questions

I’ve written a fair bit about viva questions before. I’m exploring different angles on the topic at the moment for future posts and workshops.

Here are eight short thoughts that might be useful:

  1. There are lots and lots of lists of common viva questions. Google it. There’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva ignorant of what could come up.
  2. There are lots and lots of questions you could be asked about your thesis which won’t be on any of those lists.
  3. You can’t practise every potential viva question.
  4. You could reflect and practise a few in particular on explaining your research or methodology.
  5. You can practise answering unexpected questions so you get comfortable in thinking through questions you’ve never considered before.
  6. You don’t have to answer a question immediately without pause or asking for clarification.
  7. You don’t have to answer a question without making a note of it first.
  8. Every question in the viva is being asked for a reason.

Number 5 is important. You can gain confidence by knowing that you can answer questions in viva-like conditions. Mock vivas, conversations with friends, giving seminars – there are lots of opportunities. Go find them.

Improbable

How many times have you answered questions about your research?

How many times have you read a paper and increased your knowledge?

How often have you made a contribution to your field?

How many times have you had a discussion with someone about your work?

How many times have you checked your work?

How many times have you thought about your thesis and how best to write it?

So…

How likely is it that you will be faced with an unanswerable question in the viva? How likely is it that you will freeze or go blank? How likely is it that you’ll realise that something you did is fundamentally wrong? How likely is it that you’ll face one of the nightmare scenarios that people imagine and torture themselves with?

It’s not likely, right?

You did the work. Do the prep. Thrive in the viva.

3 Questions You’ll Never Be Asked…

…but you might get a lot of help from considering them:

  • What do you not want to talk about in your viva?
  • Following on from that, why do you not want to talk about it?
  • What would you say if it did come up?

Your examiners won’t ask these questions, but answers to them will help you. Reflect on your thesis and research journey. What do you not want to focus on?

Hypotheticals

What if your examiners ask you a question and you go blank?

What if you forget something?

What if your examiners don’t agree on the outcome of the viva?

What if you arrive late?

What if you don’t know the answer?

And so on. The consequences for some of these situations seem bad. Some of them are easily coped with in the moment (if you go blank, think more; if you don’t know something, discuss it with your examiners), and some aren’t. But none of these will necessarily happen in the viva. Some of them are not likely at all.

You can’t always control how you feel, but rather than obsess over what-if scenarios, try to give your attention to preparation that helps.

What if you invested your time and energy in being prepared for the viva? What would happen then?

Why-How-What

If you’re looking for a way to share a summary of your research, as you might in the viva, think Why-How-What:

  • Why is your topic worth researching?
  • How have you gone about researching it?
  • What have you found?

Every time you give a summary of your work you get to try new ways to communicate what’s important. These questions are only the beginning, you might want to elaborate. You have to start somewhere though.

The Good Stuff

I ask people how they feel about the viva at the start of viva prep workshops. It’s rare for candidates to say excited. Sometimes people will frame excitement as “excited that my PhD is almost over” but that’s quite different from “excited that I get to talk to my examiners about my research.”

You can’t cherry pick the discussion in the viva, and it’s not wise to only focus on the good stuff in your prep, but you can take control of where some of your motivation is coming from for the viva. If you ask the right questions you can inspire yourself. Maybe if you have any anxiety about it all, you can change the way that you think about it.

So, to start, what are you excited to talk about with your examiners?

Six More Whys

I wrote a short post a few months ago with six why questions to help reflect on your research. Here are six more to continue the process.

  1. Why had no-one already done what you’ve done for your PhD?
  2. Why is your work original?
  3. Why is your work necessary?
  4. Why would someone else care about your research?
  5. Why is your thesis now finished?
  6. Why will you be celebrating after the viva?

Make some notes and let your answers rest for a couple of days. Come back and reflect some more.

Make opportunities to explore your research now your PhD is almost done.